London’s culinary streets: from bacon to buns

Well, readers, I appear to have painted myself into a corner with trying to be too specific with categories of culinary street names (see yesterday’s post) and now I’ve messed up the alphabetical order of them. Since even I need some kind of system I am throwing categories to the wind and backtracking to the letter ‘b’. Starting with Bacon’s Lane in Highgate, and Bacon Grove in Bermondsey.

Bacon’s Lane is not really about bacon: it is named after Sir Francis Bacon; it marks the spot of the house where he died, a victim of his own thirst for knowledge: he contracted pneumonia after investigating the principles of refrigeration, a pursuit that involved him stuffing a fowl with snow to see if it would preserve the meat.

Incidentally, Bacon’s other connections to London streets include the Strand (or just Strand, if you prefer), where he was born, and Bleeding Heart Yard. He was an unsuccessful suitor of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who is the source of one of the theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard.

Bacon Grove is also not about bacon; however, it does not take its name from Francis Bacon. It is from Josiah Bacon, a 17th-century leather merchant whose will provided for the foundation of Bacon’s School (later a City Technology College, and now an Academy called Bacon’s College), along with an endowment of £150 per year.

In the interest of full disclosure I should say that there is also a Bacon Street in East London, but I still don’t know the derivation of that particular name.

Bunhill Row is definitely not really a culinary street name as it it nothing to do with buns. It is, more disgustingly, from the nearby fields of the same name, originally Bone Hill Fields.

The fields were a burial ground dating from 1549 when a thousand carts full of bones from the over-crowded charnel houses at St Paul’s dumped their loads there. The name was in use before then, so it seems likely that people had historically taken advantage of the marshy land there for dumping various items, including bones.

In the 17th century it was intended as a burial ground for victims of the 1665 plague; it was never used for that purpose, nor was it ever consecrated, leading it to become a popular burial ground with the non-conformists. Following the Burial Act of 1852, allowing such places to be closed when they became full, the last burial that took place there was in 1854 when a 15-year-old girl was laid to rest.

Among the bones of 120,000 people who were interred in Bunhill Fields were John Bunyan, William Blake, and Daniel Defoe. There is a memorial, erected in 1870, to mark Defoe’s resting place; the money was obtained from a collection taken up by local schoolchildren. There is also an adjoining Quaker churchyard that contains the body of George Fox.

John Milton had a house in Bunhill Row from 1662 until his death in 1674.

Happily, Bunhouse Place (not Funhouse, as my computer is convinced) in Chelsea does relate to food – Chelsea buns, what else? Mr and Mrs Hand established the Chelsea Bun House near here in the 18th century. Jonathan Swift was sold a stale bun one day and he wrote in a letter dated 1711, “Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one to-day in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it…”

Despite Swift’s disappointment, Bun House did a storming trade, and was patronized by royalty; there were said to be as many as 50,000 people waiting outside on Good Fridays to buy hot cross buns, traditionally eaten on that day. This caused some consternation among the neighbours and in 1793 Mrs Hand declared that she would not sell any hot cross buns on that day.

This was made clear (or maybe not) in a notice on the shop window, which read:

“Mrs. Hand respectfully informs her friends and the public, that in consequence of the great concourse of people which assembled before her house at a very early hour, on the morning of Good Friday last, by which her neighbours (with whom she has always lived in friendship and repute) have been much alarmed and annoyed; it having also been intimated, that to encourage or countenance a tumultuous assembly at this particular period might be attended with consequences more serious than have hitherto been apprehended; desirous, therefore, of testifying her regard and obedience to those laws by which she is happily protected, she is determined, though much to her loss, not to sell Cross Buns on that day to any person whatever, but Chelsea buns as usual.”

Despite the fact that business began to decline in 1804, there were still nearly a quarter of a million buns sold on Good Friday 1839, the year when the Bun House finally closed.

In 1592 it was made illegal to sell hot cross buns except at burials, on Good Friday, or at Christmas. Those who ignored the edict had to forfeit their buns to the poor.

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Ham Yard and other pig-related street names

Ham Yard StreatsofLondon
Photo from http://www.streatsoflondon.com

Revisiting Ham Yard: I have a special occasion coming up next week and my research for a special pre-theatre dinner restaurant led me to, among others, a new Japanese restaurant in Ham Yard. (Engawa – anyone heard of it or have any experience of it?)

Ham Yard properly belongs in the ‘gastronomy street names’. Food played a large part in the naming of taverns – and hence London streets; often the speciality of the house would be featured in the sign. There was a Ham tavern here as early as 1739 and there was also once a Tudor mill in this area (commemorated in Great Windmill Street). The Ham tavern became the Ham and Windmill, was renamed the Lyric in 1890 and still stands there today.

Ham Yard was once the congregation point for London’s ‘sandwich men’, which is only a mental hop, skip, and jump to the Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, who is popularly believed to have created the sandwich because he did not to move from his gaming table and ordered some meat between two slices of bread so that it would be easier to eat. (Another version is that he came up with the concept when he was working at a desk rather than gambling at a a table.)

Still, the Earl was a ‘bit of a one’ as the expression goes, and whether his sandwich came about because of work or play, he was a member of the notorious Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, otherwise known as the Hellfire Club. Another member was the radical journalist John Wilkes, who had one of the best comeback lines in history.

Wilkes, quick-witted and acerbic, is one of the people to whom the following is attributed: when Sandwich said to him, “Sir, I do not know if you will die on the gallows or of the pox,” Wilkes replied, “That, my lord, depends on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress.”

Bacon Street streats
Photo from http://www.streatsoflondon.com

But back to gastronomy and street names; in particular, pig-related streets. In addition to Ham Yard there is also a Bacon Street in East London, described as a ‘drab little turning off Brick Lane’; a Bacon’s Lane in Highgate, and a Bacon Grove in Bermondsey.

Bacon Street, the origin of the name of which I am still investigating, may be most famous for its ‘king’: Charlie Burns, who died in 2012 aged 96. He grew up in the street and ran the family business there, visiting it every day until his death. For a in-depth look at Burns, there is a fascinating article about him on the Spitalfields Life website.

Bacons Lane in Highgate is named after Sir Francis Bacon; it marks the spot of the house where he died, a victim of his own thirst for knowledge: he contracted pneumonia after investigating the principles of refrigeration, a pursuit that involved him stuffing a fowl with snow to see if it would preserve the meat.

Huggin HillBacon Grove takes its name from a Josiah Bacon, a 17th-century leather merchant whose will provided for the foundation of Bacon’s School (later a City Technology College, and now an Academy called Bacon’s College), along with an endowment of £150 per year.

While not strictly speaking gastronomy, there are two other fun ‘pig’ street names: Huggin Hill, which takes its name from hogs rather than hugs, and Swains Lane, which takes its name from swine rather than gallant pastoral gentlemen.

Incidentally, the Ham Yard and Bacon Street signs are compliments of the excellent streatsoflondon.com website, with photos of just about every gastronomic street sign in London.